The campaign hasn’t officially started, but candidates to be France’s next president are already locked into battle. Tonight the top five will face-off on TV, the first time a presidential debate has been held before the start of the election season.
While 11 candidates will be on the ballots in the first round of elections on April 23, only the leading five contestants are to take part in Monday night’s debate: Marine Le Pen of the National Front, Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the centrist En Marche! (On the Move!) movement Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Benoît Hamon and Les Républicains nominee François Fillon.
The campaign season doesn’t officially open until two weeks before the first round of voting, or April 10.
At tonight’s debate the candidates will all be asked to present their visions for France’s society, economy and the nation’s place in the world. The debate will take place in front of an audience of 400 people (each candidate is allowed to pack the crowd with 30 supporters) and the candidates will be arranged in a circle – all the better to maximise confrontation. The battle is expected to last at least two-and-a-half hours.
The debate will kick off with a softball question: “What kind of president do you want to be?” Each candidate has a maximum of 90 seconds to answer.
As the frontrunners, Macron and Le Pen will likely come under heavy fire from rivals seeking to gain in the polls. Fillon, who is under formal investigation for the embezzlement of state funds and has resolutely refused to cede his party’s nomination to a less tarnished candidate, will surely take his fair share of hits as well.
For months, polls indicated that Le Pen would take the most votes in the first round of voting, but some recent surveys have Macron edging her out. He is tipped to beat her handily in the May 7 second round. Le Pen’s advisors told the AFP that she planned to attack Macron for his pro-EU “globalist” programme.
According to polls published Sunday by Odoxa and Kantar-Sofres, Le Pen and Macron are running neck-in-neck in the first round at 26 percent each. Fillon is set to gain 19 percent of the votes, and Hamon and Mélenchon are tied at 12 percent each.
Tonight’s debate marks the first time any of the candidates have had direct public interaction with one another. Given how tumultuous this election season has been thus far, the televised event may well provide a dramatic evening.
The debate will air Monday evening at 9pm on French broadcast channels TF1 and LCI. Two other debates are scheduled, one for April 4 and the other for April 20.